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'The Souls Of China' Documents Country's Dramatic Return To Religion


When the writer Ian Johnson made his first trip to China in the mid-1980s, he says religious life seemed to be dead. There were few worshippers left in a country that once had a million temples. Now he says the country is experiencing a dramatic return to religion with roughly a quarter of the country embracing Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam and other faiths. Johnson explores this resurgence in a new book called, "The Souls Of China: The Return Of Religion After Mao." I asked him if I would see signs of religious life if I traveled through China today.

IAN JOHNSON: I think you would, especially if you got outside of Beijing. Beijing is where the government's control is the strongest. But when you go out to the countryside or if you go to temples on certain holy days, the number of people are incredibly large. You can see in temples, they have these stone tablets called steles. And if you look at the stele, you can see the amount of money that people donate to these temples. It's amazing.

You can look at a temple and count up quickly a million U.S. dollars in donations. And you can also see churches being built and mosques being built depending on the part of the country that you go to.

SHAPIRO: Some of the people who practice these faiths are quick to tell you that what they are doing is culture. It's not religion. It's not politics. One guy says, as you write, culture - C-U-L-T-U-R-E. Why is this distinction so important to them?


Well, religion is something that's very tightly controlled by the Communist Party. It has this political feel to it, something that's a little dangerous. So if you just say you're doing culture, then it's a lot easier to do what you want.

I've been to temples where people are praying, and the local officials say, see, this is traditional Chinese culture. And I say, well, it looks like religion to me. They're kowtowing in front of statues. They're lighting incense. And he's like, oh, no, no, no. It's not religion because if it's religion, it's got to be approved by the government et cetera, et cetera. If we just call it culture, then it's sort of something we can do on our own.

SHAPIRO: There is such an interesting relationship between these emerging religious practices or returning religious practices, I guess we should say, and the government. There are several instances where you talk about sort of local government observers sitting in the back of a religious ceremony, and the preacher trying to thread this needle where he can deliver a message that might be a little bit barbed but deliver it not so explicitly that the government agents will shut down the ceremony.

JOHNSON: Yeah, especially with Christianity. There's a suspicion of it from the government side. They see Christianity as foreign-influenced. So in that particular case, yeah, there were plainclothes police at the back of the hall - this was a big Christmas service that I attended - and they were listening in. And I think they were eager to find an excuse to shut it down, but they didn't.

On the other hand, the so-called traditional faiths are often really encouraged by the government. And we can see this under Xi Jinping, that he's given a lot of money and support to traditional religions like Buddhism and Taoism.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. You say that the government has decided to co-opt religious groups, at least the traditional ones, rather than crush them. What's behind that decision?

JOHNSON: Well, I think there's a couple of things. If you want to be cynical, you could say the Communist Party has always viewed religion as the opiate of the masses but now wants to use it for its own purposes to opiate the people to keep them docile and not thinking of politics.

But I think there's also in a more positive sense that the government recognizes that there is a lack of values in society - that people don't believe in anything and there's a great uncertainty in society, a national malaise. And they also recognize that most people really don't believe in communism anymore. So they look at the traditional faiths as a way of instilling some kind of morality, basic principles for good living and that sort of thing.

SHAPIRO: There's one sermon you describe that, for me, really distilled part of the appeal of this, where the man delivering the sermon at a funeral uses the common phrase, long live so-and-so, which is usually applied to high-ranking Communist Party officials. And in this case, he was applying it to this typical working-class woman who had died.

JOHNSON: Yeah. This pastor, Wang Yi (ph), in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu was probably one of the best pastors I've ever heard. And this sermon was just a great sermon because he said, this woman deserves long life.

SHAPIRO: What is that phrase?

JOHNSON: Wansui. So they often say, you know, the Communist Party wansui, Chairman Mao wansui. And he was saying those people don't have wansui. It's this woman who has eternal life because she was a good person, and she believed in Christianity and so on. And people were sort of shocked when they listened to that. In the congregation, they were sitting there looking at him going, oh, my gosh, what's he talking about? Then they really got it, and the congregation bonded with him. You could see it happening right there.

SHAPIRO: Some of the religious leaders you spoke to seemed almost like social activists. In a society where many forms of civil society are not allowed, it often seemed that these churches and other religious groups kind of took the place of the unions, the civic organizations, the institutions that might hold local government officials to account or otherwise organize the populace. Is that the function that these groups are serving right now in China?

JOHNSON: Yeah. I think this is the double-edged sword of religion. On the one hand, you can say, well, it's something that will keep people in line maybe or keep them happy so they don't think about politics. But all religions have an appeal to higher senses of justice and righteousness, and it inspires people to social action.

SHAPIRO: Do you think that poses a threat to the government structure as it exists now?

JOHNSON: I don't think it's going to be like, say, in the Cold War in Poland where the Catholic Church was a separate force that helped undermine communist rule. It won't go that quickly. But I do think that it does create values that are higher than any government's values - ideas of righteousness and justice that people are inspired by and that will inspire them to action if they feel that they are unjustly treated by the government.

SHAPIRO: Ian Johnson is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer based in Beijing, and his new book is called "The Souls Of China: The Return Of Religion After Mao." Thanks so much for joining us.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.